Emergency Rooms & Cutting Rooms: What’s Wrong with “The Fighter”

“Very few things happen at the right time and the rest don’t happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” — Herodotus, by way of Mark Twain

Like most biopics, The Fighter is a lavish celluloid Valentine to its subject. Unfortunately, it’s also a Valentine that’s unfinished, riddled with typos and unwitting backhanded compliments to many of its recipients.

I’m tasked with addressing the film from a boxing standpoint, so please indulge me a thumbnail cinephile review: It’s a garish, Oscar-batory acting showcase (dig those sledgehammer-subtle argument scenes, straight out of Scorsese’s coke-eroded septum), a slightly less-dishonest-than-usual Hollywood sports movie (a large reason for why its ending is ultimately unsatisfying; when you’re painting by numbers, straying outside the lines makes you look like a slob, not an artist) and a surprisingly anemic film from David O. Russell, a writer-director who normally brings a lot more originality and vigor than this (considering that the stories of Mark Wahlberg’s struggles to get this film made have floated around for years and years, I’m guessing that Russell was not the first, second or even third directorial hired gun attached to the project).

“Irish” Micky Ward was never a true world champion; it’s not in his composition and that was never his destiny. What made him so unique and valuable to the sport was that he’s one of the few real throwback fighters of our times; in the ring, there was no quit in him, no matter how outgunned or outclassed he was. The Throwback is the rare class of fighter who taps directly into boxing’s mythical Golden Age — a time when men were men, Friday night was Fight Night and smoky fight clubs and small theaters in every city were packed with spectators out to enjoy round after round of broken-nosed pugs feverishly hammering their opponents in competitions that were as much a test of a human body’s structural integrity and endurance as of a man’s will and a boxer’s skill. The success of the Rocky series comes in large part from how effectively the early films push all the key buttons related to the Throwback in our collective memory. A recurring compliment given to many of Ward’s fights, win or lose, is “That fight was so amazing — if it were in a movie, nobody would accept it as real!”

There was always drama in a Ward fight — his left hook could and did dig him out of a lot of the holes he found himself in on judges’ scorecards over the years — but by and large, Ward came up short at the moment of truth far more often than most Hollywood or even independent-film heroes are allowed to do these days. Judging by the attendance records set and awards showered over his last handful of fights prior to retirement — Ward made history as the first boxer with more than ten losses on his professional record to earn a million-dollar payday for a fight, and he essentially owned the Fight Of The Year award for the last three years of his career — anyone with even a passing interest in boxing would sacrifice a dozen world champions for a true throwback. Ward was probably worth two dozen world champs. But he really doesn’t have a life story that modern Americans would like — we prefer our heroes to win all the time now and if they must lose, it should be someone else’s fault — so it’s no surprise to see his story recontextualized and finessed to fit that taste. But, by trying to force Ward’s square-peg life into a round (well, this being a faux indie film, perhaps we’ll call it oblong) hole, this biopic film possibly takes the biggest dump on its real-life protagonist since director James Mangold and producer/star Winona Ryder reframed Susanna Kaysen writing her memoir Girl Interrupted as an act of character — assassinating revenge against the real-life analogue to Angelina Jolie’s scene-stealer.

Ward was a career junior welterweight, rarely rising much beyond 142 pounds for a fight; for whatever reason, the filmmakers present him as a full-blown welterweight. Perhaps to drive home their vision of Ward as a largely passive character or perhaps to inject some “Fuck Yeah!” moments into the film to keep the audience engaged, they significantly reframe most of the film’s fights so that Wahlberg’s Ward takes hellacious, Rocky-esque beatings before pulling out a come-from-behind victory.

Contrary to the common perception, boxers generally aren’t aggressive people — one trainer once referred to them as more like racehorses than tough guys — so how shy or soft-spoken a fighter is outside the ring doesn’t directly correlate to how aggressive he is in the ring, as guys like Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler can attest. Ward was an infamously slow starter and a boxer whose focus on throwing almost nothing but power punches meant that he rarely threw more punches per round than his opponent. He had a curious habit of taking punches he didn’t have to take in some fights but he wasn’t just a punching bag with fight-ending power in his left hook, and he never seemed more codependent than any other professional fighter who had family for management. With that many sisters, even Wahlberg’s Ward seems less codependent than simply outnumbered; it reminds me a bit of The Great White Hope‘s take on Jack Johnson: “He Could Beat Any White Man In The World. He Just Couldn’t Beat All Of Them.”

The filmmakers have an almost-forensic eye for detail — from the accuracy of the costume design to the location shooting and even the post-fight celebration choreography and Dickie’s weird bald spot — which suggests that most of their history revisions were done for dramatic purposes. (Of course, they go to the trouble of de-aging Sugar Ray Leonard, but nearly every car has a nice big 2011 inspection sticker on the left side of its windshield.)

The Mike Mungin fight presented in the film is a near-execution between a welterweight Ward and a super-middleweight Mungin; in reality, a junior-welterweight Ward and a not-quite-full welterweight Mungin gave each other hell for 10 rounds in a close fight — the scorecards were 94-95, 93-96 and 94-95 (two judges called it a draw, with Ward losing due to him being knocked down in the sixth round, and the other judge scored it six rounds to four for Mungin). Why did the filmmakers double the weight difference and exaggerate the fight itself to nearly cartoonish levels? Is that really more dramatic? Does Wahlberg’s Ward need to have his ass thoroughly kicked to sell him quitting the sport shortly after this scene and to underline for the mouthbreathers in the theater that the movie’s family really doesn’t always have what’s best for Ward in mind? Ward’s actual first retirement occurred eight fights — three wins and five losses, including the four-fight losing streak they mention in the film — and three years AFTER Mungin. That’s a lot of chronology shuffling just to show Ward getting his head beat in and that his family are kind of assholes.

Boxing is one of this rare sports businesses where, in the absence of any significant codified protection for the participants, the kind of manipulation and abuse shown in the film is commonplace; a boxer drops out of a fight for whatever reason, and the other guy has to fight whomever the promoter/manager/producer can find on short notice, or that fighter — who made good on his contract in every way — simply doesn’t get paid. In that case, as the film makes clear, usually no one else in his camp gets paid either. (Of course, the promoters rarely give refunds to ticket buyers when such fights are altered or fall through entirely; somehow this is considered ethical and good business to boot.) Being a classic club fighter, Ward’s professional resume is generously sprinkled with these replacement-opponent fights. Still, the film takes this practice a step further and contextualizes it as the movie family’s exploitation of Wahlberg’s Ward, counting on the general audience’s ignorance of the fallibility of the triangle system (“A beat B; you knocked A out, so you’ll beat B too”) to put it into the mouths of two pro fighters with a straight face.

The filmmakers cite Ward’s comeback as being a fight against someone named Hernandez at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire; that casino was the site for Ward’s war with Emanuel Augustus (née Burton) a few years later — the first fight in Ward’s winning streak of collecting Fight of the Year honors until his retirement — but Ward never fought anyone named Hernandez as a pro. Were the filmmakers afraid Luis Castillo (five wins and ten losses before the Ward fight; the same five wins plus 15 losses when he retired seven years later) or the Sheraton Inn of Lowell would sue them for libel/slander? I’d worry more the Hampton would call their lawyers over the charge that they don’t even have dressing rooms for their fighters. Minutes later, they present Alfonso Sanchez and the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas with no problem — well, except that the ring posts, round cards and canvas say Caesar’s Palace — and even get the context of the fight correct, so what gives? The filmmakers do love throwing in shout-outs to all sorts of Wardabilia, like playing Dropkick Murphys’ song about Ward for one of Wahlberg’s ring marches, so perhaps citing the Hampton is supposed to be an Easter egg for Ward trivia buffs. Thanks, but no thanks.

Again, this is quite a Valentine for Dickie Ecklund, Ward and even Sgt. Mickey O’Keefe (who plays himself, no less), a pivotal but unsung figure in Ward’s life. I guess it was very cool of them to give O’Keefe so much face-time in the film but, by having him as a constant in the film, the filmmakers muddy a clear sense of his importance in Ward’s actual life and career. To the best of my knowledge, O’Keefe wasn’t a corner-man for any of Ward’s TV fights — he didn’t formally join Ward’s camp until a bit after Ward’s 1991 retirement, guiding him through his first few comeback bouts and away from a future as a street rat like his brother. At his retirement celebration, Ward cited O’Keefe as the man without whom he never would have made it to the heights he’d reached by then, much to the profound annoyance of his mother, brother and assorted management types. Obviously, dropping O’Keefe for Dickie would have made Wahlberg’s Ward look callous — although that’s what Ward did, much to his later regret — but inserting O’Keefe directly into Wahlberg-Ward’s pre-retirement entourage is presumably the filmmakers thinking that they were doing O’Keefe a solid. Again, thanks, but no thanks.

Orson Welles used to say that every story has a happy ending, depending on when you choose to end it. By this point in The Fighter, the filmmakers obviously want to get to a happy boxing-movie ending. The only happy endings allowed in boxing movies are either winning/retaining a title belt or winning/regaining the girl. Ward already has the girl, so they fast-forward through the two fights for more significant championships that the actual Ward had and lost prior to the title fight with Shea Neary that ends the film: first Vince Phillips for the IBF light-welterweight title, which Ward lost on the cards after a cut stopped the fight, and later Zab Judah for the interim USBA light-welterweight belt, where Ward dropped a decision after being cockpunched in the first round and then outworked all night. The Neary fight is again reframed to be another come-from-behind beatdown of Ward, when in reality it was a back-and-forth, almost chess-like brawl from the opening bell.

To call the World Boxing Union a minor sanctioning body almost denigrates the word “minor” — Ward never even defended the title after winning it. He might as well have brought a “World’s #1 Dad” coffee mug into the ring to defend. The filmmakers do a good job of waving their hands around and yelling “LALALALALALALA” so most people won’t notice, going so far as to cobble together the phrase “Neary is the current welterweight champion of the world” to insert into iconic HBO announcer Jim Lampley’s mouth, easily the most dishonest moment in the entire film. For most of the TV fights recreated in the film, the filmmakers used snippets of the commentators’ audio from the actual fights in more or less the correct context to the action onscreen. So, to chop up some audio (I sincerely hope Lampley didn’t come in and loop the line in the film’s post-production) and cash in on Lampley’s reputation for honesty just to oversell this fight for a nickle-plated Hollywood ending is like using the footage of Walter Cronkite announcing President Kennedy’s death but then manipulating Cronkite audio-video to make him describe JFK as “The greatest man who ever lived in the history of this universe or any other.”

The Fighter’s ending is already staged to make just a tinny gonk largely because the problems laid down at the beginning of the film — the challenges The Fighter (Dickie or Micky) has had to overcome — have already been conquered before the final fight. Dickie has pierced the cycle of delusion and addiction he was trapped in, while Micky has risen above his life as a lonely stepping-stone lost in the shadow of his and his family’s collective Dickie-worship.

The film’s real triumph comes after Dickie returns to the gym straight from prison. Micky, without Charlene’s or Mickey’s prompting, follows him into in the locker room to half-heartedly tell him that he doesn’t want him to be his trainer, falling back on “I promised them.” Wahlberg’s Ward then edges closer to being his own man by ordering his family’s welcome-home party out of his gym so that he can continue training. Some Hollywood nonsense ensues — do you have to be a boxing nerd to understand that Micky did not need Dickie to tell him to work Sanchez on the inside and wear him out if going toe-to-toe and trying to land overhand shots didn’t work? — until he finally steps up and spells out what he wants. (I don’t know what to make of it being an extended harangue from Charlene, of all people, that finally breaks Micky’s verbal logjam, nor why/how his mother is almost entirely silent for the entire scene; the latter is probably Alice still waiting for Micky to add her to the list of people he wants on his team after, um, forgetting her the first time.) The filmmakers don’t do O’Keefe any favors by presenting him as an AA who’s against forgiveness for a fellow recovering addict, with the inference that O’Keefe will lose this potentially lucrative training gig if Dickie returns. Really, it’s amazing that they got the guy to play this version of himself; that much context can’t be fabricated in the editing room.

Taken on its own terms, Wahlberg’s Ward is right; if Dickie is sober, then he should be on Ward’s team if he wants him there. Does this make Wahlberg’s Ward come off as weak, even in his moment of self-actualizing triumph? America used to be a land of second chances, although it seems Real Americans hate that now too; 100% winners don’t need second chances, after all. To guild the lily, the filmmakers send Dickie off on that ridiculous cake-delivering mission, again for the mouthbreathers to see that he’s really real about this whole crack-is-whack, just-say-no thing, then he’s off to Charlene’s to make nice with her get the team back together. (Where the hell is Micky while Dickie walks to Crack Street, then walks over to Charlene’s house for an extended argument/reconciliation? Micky drove over, and he still didn’t get there first? It’s like the movie forgets about him whenever Dickie, or I should say Christian Bale, has something to do. Even during his incarceration, when he’s literally doing nothing, the movie keeps closer tabs on Dickie than it does anyone else.) It’s difficult to tell if it’s cleverness or confusion at the heart of these scenes; at Micky’s most active moment as a character, it’s Dickie who takes charge of the film again, moves events forward and has everyone together for the Neary fight.

Because we’ve all been so trained to view the late-second/early third acts in these films as prologue for the final competition — in a Rocky film, everything from Dickie walking out of prison to the beginning of the Neary press conference would have been condensed to about two minutes of musical training montage — I imagine most viewers probably dismiss these scenes as another challenge for our hero to overcome in order to ready himself to defeat The Champ and/or win (back) the heart of The Girl.

Taken as just a boxing movie, I actually quite enjoyed Wahlberg’s turn as a sweet-natured, fundamentally good dude trapped in a world of perpetually on-the-cusp-of-rage shrews and their emasculated husbands — just one unannounced visit to his ex’s house to see his daughter before the Mamby fight provides an delightfully/succinctly unpleasant impression that he sought out a spouse who’s just as miserable a piece of work as his mother. Wahlberg’s Ward lives in an empty world; there is no art on his apartment walls, nothing in the place that’s not boxing-related. He’s so cut off from any sense of culture that he doesn’t seem to get that seeing Belle Epoque in another town’s art-house cinema is not a good idea for a first date you picked up in a bar, even if you can’t bear the thought of anyone from your hometown seeing how badly you’ve been beaten. (As if Lowell didn’t get ESPN2 back then.)

This should be the moment where I praise Melissa Leo’s work as Alice Ward to the skies, but I don’t see greatness; her Alice is a wonderful villainess and she acquits herself well in the goombah-kaiju shouting matches that Scorsese convinced the English-speaking world was superb drama around 1980, but her performance doesn’t haunt me the way the brilliance that I’ve heard claimed for her should. I found Jack McGee’s George Ward quite good despite having even less to work with — his reactions to the post-prison gym scenes were subtle and affecting, I admired his involuntary twitch when he describes the cab-company owner as “very organized” and he comes off as the only family member outside of Micky and Dickie who exists outside of the scenes where he appears. (Two more Easter-egg moments I enjoyed are the action scenes at Charlene’s apartment building where the dogwalkers appear to be the real-life George & Alice.)

But, how can anyone write about the film or Micky Ward’s life and career without a few paragraphs about Dick Ecklund?

I was too young to catch any of Ecklund’s fights, but I was the perfect age to see him several times a week for what seems like years in Maryann DeLeo, Richard Farrell (a distant cousin to the Ecklund-Ward family) and Jon Alpert’s 1995 documentary, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, as part of HBO’s “America Undercover” series. In a lot of ways, seeing the old, severely reduced but still alive and kicking Dickie and Boo Boo (the chubby, bald guy in the background) at The Fighter‘s end credits gave me more of a charge than seeing Micky again.

The crackumentary in The Fighter recasts Dickie as a primary character, so Bale steals two films in one. Crack Street‘s Dickie is at most a B-plot to the epic, heartbreaking clusterfuck of Boo Boo and Brenda’s mad love with the pipe and occasionally each other. (It’s disappointing The Fighter’s filmmakers chose the bland title Crack in America for their version of the documentary, instead of Nightmare on Crack Street, which I presume I’m not the only fan who misremembered it being named.) The Dickie presented in Crack Street is a reticent man-child in almost as much denial about his addiction as his mother is, but whose life revolves around drugs with boxing and his son tied for a distant second place. He isn’t nearly as vocal, much less expositional and cocky, as Bale’s motormouth is in just a few sentences, so it’s a real punch in the gut to see him suddenly in Middlesex County jail on charges of carjacking, kidnapping and armed robbery with a sawed-off shotgun.

Bail for the movie Dickie is set at $25,000 but his actual bail was “just” $5,000, a figure so far outside the family’s resources that his mother held a fundraiser at the VFW — $10 a head to watch a tape of the Sugar Ray Leonard fight on a big-screen TV. That Night At The Fights ended early, with a fight breaking out in the crowd — these eagle eyes insist that this is Micky’s first appearance in the documentary, and it looks like he was one of the main participants in the brawl — leaving his mom not much closer to having the five grand than she was before. After some more Boo Boo/Brenda drama, an inter-title informs us that Dickie has made bail and leads us into a segment showing preparation for one of Micky’s club fights; even at this point, Dickie already seems fully aware of how thoroughly he has wasted his talent.

The crime that finally sends the film’s Dickie to prison (or at least implies that it’s why he’s going up the river) plays out like something out of a slightly darker National Lampoon’s Animal House: Impersonating cops to shake down married johns in their cars. According to Crack Street, the docket that lands Dickie in prison reads like a low-ranking demon’s summer reading: Breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony; Masked armed robbery; Kidnapping; Possession of a firearm without a license. As he cracks up one last time with Boo Boo before heading off to his sentencing, Dickie has a moment of terse, Hemingway-esque clarity: “This stuff destroyed me. This stuff destroys everybody. This going-away present could (possibly “should”) put me in the grave.” This is nearly the largest sequence of consecutive words uttered by Dickie in the entire documentary, yet none of it appears in The Fighter; much like Ward’s fights, the filmmakers chose to reframe the Dickie shown in the documentary for some inscrutable dramaturgical reason. Like the reality that he didn’t really knock Sugar Ray down, the film’s Dickie never directly addresses his addiction. Perhaps the film is too cool for such Afterschool Special-style frankness.

To bring the documentary into The Fighter at all is one of many odd choices the filmmakers made — perhaps the oddest, as it makes some sense to avoid covering the Emanuel Augustus/Burton fight, a confusing-to-the-laymen brawl that Ward probably only won on the hometown scorecards, and to avoid struggling to shoehorn all of the drama, pathos and even irony of Ward’s immortal “Thrillogy” of fights with the late Arturo “Thunder” Gatti in at the end. Also, Ward loses the second and third fights by pretty wide margins. The in- and out-of-the-ring drama of those fights would make a great standalone film, however boxing newbies would probably think the filmmakers were exaggerating the action.

Again, the filmmakers reshuffled the chronology of events so that Crack Street made its debut during Wahlberg-Ward’s retirement; Ward was already two or three fights into his comeback by then. It is quite dramatic to have Ward mount his comeback on the heels of so much of his family’s dirty laundry being aired in public — it makes some psychological sense that it would liberate him from the pretense that his brother/co-trainer was perfectly fine, and give him permission to pursue his goals and dreams on his own terms, with the woman he loves watching him rise the next morning and stride into his own better tomorrow. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t pull any Rocky or Cameron Crowe bullshit by giving Charlene a short speech about how she believes in him or pound the soundtrack with some inspirational classic rock; instead, Wahlberg-Ward walks to the gym to the sound of a nearby church tolling seven o’clock in the morning, a subtle but powerful signifier that probably only works on the Catholic dog-whistle frequency. Still, does everything in this fucking film have to be about Dickie in some form or another? All pro boxers quit and come back a few years later; what made Ward unique is that he came back truly refreshed and better than he was. (Since I’ve already shat on the other Oscar winning performances, I should address Bale’s acting before moving on from the movie: He’s good, really nails the Lowell accent; he should use that voice instead of his Cookie Monster one in the next Batman movie.)

As for Ward, after the Neary “title” fight that climaxes The Fighter, he went on to wage 40 rounds of see-sawing total war with Augustus/Burton and then Gatti, with the last three rounds of his career seeing him get hit in the head so hard that it shifted his brain’s positioning in his skull, giving him vertical double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-vision for more than a year afterward. He fought on in that bout regardless, proving his mettle with the same quiet, slightly bemused steadiness he brought to every fight.

Gatti was a fellow member of the Throwback elite who, lacking Ward’s one-liver-punch knockout power and workman’s ethic, made up for it in superior natural talent, better management, tons of raw grit and a casual stoicism that saw him take the worst that larger men could dish out — in his case, against far stiffer competition than Ward faced — and keep coming forward to at least try to win every round he fought. Often plagued with hand injuries, Gatti broke his right hand on Ward’s hip in Round Four of their third fight; during the round break, he informed his trainer of the injury and then said he was going to keep fighting anyway. The right hand gradually returned to his arsenal late in the fight, once it was damaged enough that it went numb. That’s a Throwback.

Ward and Gatti complemented and, in many ways, completed each other, Gatti going so far as to say that fighting Ward was what he imagined fighting himself would be like. After each of their battles, they spent much time in the Emergency Room together, joking and chatting about how they really should be paid more to nearly kill themselves and each other. After Ward made good on his vow to retire after the Gatti rubber match, he joined Gatti’s camp as a trainer/corner-man/advisor until Gatti’s retirement in 2007.

Micky Ward is not an ex-world champion; he’s a family man and a working stiff, one with the kind of fight resume a lot of world champs envy.

From March, 2011

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